The Role of Fear and Obsession on Gothic Literature

Gothicism itself is a branch of Romanticism, which twists the idea of feeling into slightly more morbid and macabre emotions of fear and a dead, twisted and medieval past as well as losing the early Romantic sense of a moral purpose. The quotation above, taken from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, introduces some of the key ideas which seem to run prevalently throughout Gothic works of fiction and art. It seems undeniable that influence and obsession are able to create, manipulate and dominate the emotions of fear and dread which often characterise the Gothic.

Edmund Burke stated that: ‘No passion so effectually robs the minds of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear’. It seems that within the development of the Gothic, fear plays a ubiquitous role. Influence can be prevalent in inciting fear, the influence of a figure or an atmosphere and other less tangible elements of the work can be key factors which hold a certain influence over the individual.

However, fear in itself is often seen to present its own influence and it is this tantalizing inexplicable mystery of fear which so often develops and envelopes a character with obsession to retain truth and logic.

Within Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black, the main character Arthur Kipps demonstrates an obvious fear of the woman in black and the supernatural elements of her presence and appearance – ‘… suffering from some terrible wasting disease… only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones’- are certainly expressed vividly throughout and contribute largely to the influence which she increasingly has on not only Kipps but also the villagers.

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The use of heavy adjectival phrases in describing the woman, the idea of ‘deepest black’, the woman described as ‘pathetically wasted… pale and gaunt with disease’ and the alliterative skin ‘stretched and strained’, give an initially comprehensive description of the woman which not only creates fear but also develops it steadily and makes it feel ubiquitous and unavoidable, as though every element of her is grotesque.

Within the pre-1948 setting of the novel the idea of wasting, particularly referring to Tuberculosis, would have had a particularly chilling effect as the disease would have been the cause of many deaths and, before the introduction of the NHS, the lack of readily available health care would have made the disease a constant source of fear. However, it could also be argued that it is not only the descriptions of the woman which perpetuate a sense of fear and influence both the characters and the reader, indeed Hill’s descriptions of the woman are often significantly sparse.

It seems within this text that the influence of fear is born from the idea of the mysterious and the unexplored rather than the grotesque and it is the influence of the ‘unknown’ which shapes fear and creates a sense of the Gothic. The idea of a local and tightly-knit community who all share and perpetuate a sense of secrecy links strongly with the idea of this as a Gothic text – Hill here uses the idea of isolation and unfamiliarity to enhance the idea that Kipps is an outsider and to create the mystery and silence which only fuels the influence of fear upon him: ‘Mr Jerome stopped dead.

He was staring at me… Mr. Jerome looked frozen, pale, his throat moving as if he were unable to utter’. Mr Jerome’s reaction as well as the hotel landlord’s ‘… the name had stirred some strong emotion in him, all signs of which he endeavoured to suppress at once’, are representative of the general reaction towards not only the woman but anything associated with her and so clearly another manifestation of her influence over them. This idea of fear being sparked and fuelled by a sense of mystery is certainly reflected within Wordsworth’s poem, ‘The Thorn’.

Within this poem, from his collection of Lyrical Ballads, strong links can be made with The Woman in Black. The woman within the poem, Martha Ray, is a figure to be feared in the same way as the woman in black not as a result of her as a character but of the mysteries which envelope her. The whole poem is presented as a narrator’s account of what he has seen and the rumours which he has heard about ‘a woman in a scarlet cloak’. Wordsworth exacerbates the sense of fear for the woman by presenting his evidence in a haphazard and hearsay-like manner, ‘some say… ‘is said’, whilst steadily reinforcing the mystery with a sense of foreboding and subtle allusions such as the fact that ‘the heap of earth… is like an infant’s grave in size’ as well as the anaphoric use of the woman’s mysterious misery ‘Oh woe is me! Oh misery! ‘. Michael Kirkham states that the mystery comes from the fact that ‘the narrator is unable to tell us whether the child was stillborn or was murdered’1, Whilst Albert Gi?? rard, discussing why we are left in doubt, quotes a sentence from J.

F. Danby, “There is in the poem the possibility of a betrayed mother murdering her child,” and adds, “but the point, surely, is that it is never more than a possibility. “‘2 It seems key to the development of the story within the poem that the reader is made to feel the same sense of mystery that the narrator claims to feel. These slight allusions to wider and more traditionally fearful elements of the works are strongest when discussing the element of childhood and child mortality.

The continued association which the woman has with death throughout The Woman in Black, too, obviously contributes largely to her mystery and the fear of her and is reinforced by the allusions to childhood mortality and the final revelation that witnessing her causes children to die- ‘And whenever she has been seen… in some violent or dreadful circumstance, a child has died’. Again this can be seen within ‘The Thorn’ as the references to a possible infant’s death create an initial unease which reaches a climax with ‘… some will say she hanged her baby on the tree, some say she drowned it in the pond’.

The delivery of this revelation, in a blank and unashamedly horrific fashion certainly shocks a reader and gives the cold feeling of dread which is so often identified as an element of Gothicism – however, it seems that this only occurs as a result of the steady influence of mysterious and unexplored fear which Wordsworth has continually built upon. The idea of death amongst children would have been an extremely poignant and harshly relevant one contemporaneously where fears of childbirth itself and infancy were elevated. Our baby so had been thrown clear, clear against another tree. He lay crumpled on the grass below it, dead’. Again the harsh brevity and impersonal nature of these words seem to give a stark poignancy and factual element to the death of Kipps’ baby within Susan Hill’s novel; it seems as though the woman and death are inevitably interlinked and it is this inevitability which serves to enhance the dread of her character. Fear itself as well as the influence which fear can have is also one of the key themes of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Within The Picture of Dorian Gray, the portrait, an obvious anthropomorphised motif for sin and shame, is the source of fear to Dorian and it is the power of this fear which on several occasions exerts strong influences upon him. The idea of this novel as ‘immoral’ would particularly be a reference to its direct challenge to Victorian morals and values of family, sexual restraint and strict social code of conduct which were propagated at the time. Certainly at the time of publication the book was labelled ‘evil’, whilst the Scots Observer wrote that ‘Mr. Wilde has again been writing stuff that were better unwritten’3.

This quotation perhaps also demonstrates the fear of others towards the influence which Wilde himself may have held. It is not just the fear of being discovered which eats away at Dorian but the fear of himself and what he is capable of – ‘it was the living death of his own soul that troubled him’. Dorian’s panicked self-promises to revert to an acceptable lifestyle and vain attempts to atone for his sins, though futile, are all obviously influenced by his portrait: ‘One thing, however, he felt that it had done for him. It had made him conscious how unjust, how cruel, he had been to Sibyl Vane… he portrait… would be a guide to him through life’, ‘I have done too many dreadful things in life. I am not going to do any more. ‘ However, far from this fear acting as a constant reminder of morality, the fear also wields a strongly negative influence through the extreme excitement and passion of sin. This effectively reflects the nature of the mysterious fear within The Woman in Black and ‘The Thorn’ as fear itself is perhaps the greatest mystery and so the excitement for Dorian Gray lies in testing and breaking the mysteries of sin and debauchery, all characteristic elements of the Gothic.

The link between influence and obsession within The Picture of Dorian Gray is strong; it can easily be seen that obsession is merely the product of strong influence, the degradation into the fervent compulsion of obsession from unavoidable influence – ‘He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul… The more he knew, the more he desired to know. He had mad hungers that grew more ravenous as he fed them’.

This influence is seen largely within Dorian’s own fear rather than the hideousness of the portrait. This path from influence upon a character to their obsession can also be seen within The Woman in Black where the influence of the fear upon Arthur Kipps develops into his obsession with delving into and uncovering the mystery: ‘the woman in black… affected us both as deeply as any other experience we had undergone in our lives… “I must face it out…

Such things one must face. ” And even as I spoke I felt a new determination arise within me… I had fallen under some sort of spell of the kind that certain places exude and it drew me, my imaginings, my longings, my curiosity, my whole spirit… ‘. Aside from the influence which fear itself can present, within these three texts and indeed many other texts which present elements of the Gothic, the influential and obsessive power of the supernatural can be seen.

Supernatural ideas, particularly commencing with those found in an orthodox theology, came strongly into conflict with the rationalism and idealism of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason which had begun to take hold by 1688 and continued into around 1789. Gothicism, following from the Romantic, was born when seizing this challenge of the cold reality of enlightenment and, seeking feeling amidst the inartistic reason, twisted these feelings into extremes of fear, weirdness and grotesqueness.

The friction with the new schools of thought caused disillusionment and discord and in the midst of the disagreement, Gothicism adopted elements of the Supernatural as both a reaction to the new ideals and due to the stretched extremes and inherent impossibility of the supernatural. The Picture of Dorian Gray deals strongly with the element of supernaturalism with Wilde’s interpretation of Marlowe and Goethe’s Faust myth via the changing portrait. This notion of a deal with the devil is, however, stretched in Wilde’s novel to present the obsessive influence of sin rather than just the uselessness of power.

The portrait, changing to display Dorian’s sins and ages whilst he remains unchanged, seems to present an almost paradoxical influence over Dorian; whilst Dorian’s actions clearly influence the aesthetics of the picture, making it ‘the misshapen shadow that had to bear the burden that should have been his own’, the picture’s horrid nature influences Dorian’s actions. It can be seen that the picture renders him sometimes ‘good’: ‘it was watching him… e would not sin’ and sometimes, through the mere obsessive nature of sin and lust, damning him: ‘he grew more and more enamoured of… the corruption of his own soul… he had mad hungers that grew more ravenous as he fed them’, ‘an uncontrollable feeling of hatred… suggested to him by the image’. It could be viewed that this paradox between the influence between Dorian and the portrait reflects that in fact influence, far from being something supernatural and beyond control, has more of a sub-conscious and human factor in which we create and control our own influences.

Similarly The Woman in Black presents strong elements of the supernatural; the woman herself clearly has a ghostly influence over Mr. Kipps. It seems that the fact that she is a ghost, aside from the aforementioned appearance and attire, renders her influential and fearful. However there are other elements of the woman which make her so strongly influential over Arthur Kipps, the villagers and indeed the reader. Contextually, the notion of this woman would indeed have been something which was a source of great fear for many.

The idea of a ‘lone’ woman would have been unacceptable in this Victorian situation and could certainly have also created allusions to witchcraft and other ideas which challenge a strong morality of not only traditional family values but also the subservience of woman and the notion of them as the possession of a man, to be kept in check, whilst also presenting the mystery of the unknown. In addition to this, the woman herself has been viewed by several critics, such as Val Scullion, as the feminist protagonist of the novel.

This reading presents the notion that the woman is fearful and influential through her obvious hideousness and difference but also because she is a woman. The contention is that Hill’s novel challenges the prevalent anxieties about motherhood and autonomy during the period when the idea of ‘family’ itself was a difficult notion. ‘The protagonist of the novel, the eponymous woman in black, resists the lot of the so-called fallen woman’. In her spectral form, she repeatedly inflicts suffering on other families and children to avenge her own; her revenge and lack of compassion is unbound by time or place whilst her ghost is never laid to rest.

The lack of restoration in the final pages could reflect her struggle and the limitlessness of the pain which she will cause. This view, held by Scullion, contends that the woman is fearful because she exists against the idea that a woman should be ‘restrained’ and ‘controlled’. However, it seems more likely that the presentation of the woman in this way, as unruly and vengeful, is to enhance the fear rather than to play a more feminist role.

It seems within these texts that a sense of Gothic, with regard to the influence and obsession of the characters, comes not so much from the conventional fear of the supernatural and the mystical but more from a human sense of emotion and instinct and things over which man has control. It is perhaps the cold reality and bluntness of possible sin, such as the murder of Basil Hallward within The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is far more chilling and fearful than anything ‘other-worldly’ and unnatural.

Wilde’s presentation of the murder, and Dorian’s feelings after, certainly create a strongly Gothic atmosphere yet without the expected ‘darkness’ of a truly Gothic atmosphere. ‘The sky was bright, and there was a genial warmth in the air… the events of the preceding night crept with silent blood-stained feet into his brain’, it seems that the notion of humanity and the obsession which drives us, has a more powerfully chilling influence than the strictly ‘supernatural’ and ‘weird’.

It is as though the element of possibility and familiarity of humanity is what creates the fear rather than something wildly improbable; fear is born from a twisted reality rather than an unimaginable wildness. The curious influence which Lord Henry himself has over Dorian, far from being supernatural, is still chilling and as effective at creating a sense of obsession and influence as the ghostly woman in black is within Hill’s novel.

This influence and Henry’s awareness of it – ‘there was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence’ – is made more chilling to the reader because of its clearly degrading effect combined with Dorian’s naivety towards it: ‘you are certainly my best friend, Harry, no-one has ever understood me as you have’. Words from The Heart of Darkness by Conrad, another novel presenting the strongly horrific nature of man himself, seem appropriate: ‘Look at the influence that men must have… s it not frightful’ ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, a poem by Robert Browning which presents strong elements of the Gothic, seems to do so too, not because it deals with elements of the spiritual and supernatural but, because it deals so shockingly with human passions and emotions, such as Dorian’s own or Henry’s influence, which are certainly very possible and largely an element of humanity. The poem itself professes that ‘passion will prevail’, and it is chillingly Gothic that this murder has taken place not through the influence of a ghostly being or a portrait or indeed a decadent sense of medieval myth as in Keats’ ‘St.

Agnes Eve’, but the plain obsession and influence of humanity and emotion. The obsession within this poem and the pure madness of Porphyria’s lover, expecting God to interfere and say something – ‘And yet God has not said a word’ -, is dramatically heightened by the childlike simplicity of the rhyme; Rhythm mimics natural speech and the rhyme follows a conventional and standard ABABB pattern, this simplicity is demonstrated in the lines below. The symmetry of the rhyme and the ease and natural nature of the rhythm seem to reflect the madness within Porphyria’s lover despite his reposed and calm fai?? de: ‘surprise made my heart swell, and still it grew’. The madness of the man is what has influenced his action yet it was also the perfection of the scene and the obsession with Porphyria and her love ‘… she was mine, mine, fair… I… strangled her… ‘. This obsession, a perfectly human one, yet insane, is what is most chilling about Browning’s poem and indeed strongly reflects the sense of human influence within The Picture of Dorian Gray. Overall it is clear that influence, and the natural development of it into obsession, is a key feature which defines and creates the Gothic.

Influence can abound in many forms within Gothic texts such as the natural influence of fear itself upon the victim and the unnatural fear of something supernatural; however, that which seems to create the element of ‘spine-tingling’ and Gothic is bred mainly in something far more base and real than ghosts or curses. It is the possible which shocks and chills more than the unreal. In the same way that a terrible thought or feeling can be far more fearful than the unimaginable presence of something as otherworldly and unlikely as a curse, so too is Gothic literature defined by the baseness and instinct of humanity.

Within these texts, particularly ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, man himself, has more power in shaping his obsessions than would ordinarily be thought and the fact that emotions, thoughts and feelings can become so twisted and amoral is more greatly unsettling than anything incomprehensible. Human degradation is a cold reality and one which many strive to cover up yet when the mysteries of the human psyche are uncovered, perhaps because of a fearful obsession, the chilling nature of man is overturned.

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The Role of Fear and Obsession on Gothic Literature. (2017, Dec 25). Retrieved from

The Role of Fear and Obsession on Gothic Literature
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